South Africa misses one per cent science spend goal

Naledi Pandor on South Africa's R&D investment failure: "We are worried" Copyright: Flickr/World Economic Forum

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[CAPE TOWN] South Africa has failed to increase its research and development spending to one per cent of GDP by 2008–09, according to data published by the Department of Science and Technology this morning (9 September).

The news, which appears in the country’s annual research and development (R&D) survey that tracks public and private R&D expenditure, has disappointed the country’s scientists and could set a bad precedent for other African countries.

Many African countries, which on average spend just 0.3 per cent of GDP on R&D, had looked to South Africa to set an example in pursuing the continental goal of reaching one per cent by 2010.

But the new data, which covers the 2008–09 financial year, records a drop in South Africa’s R&D spend as a proportion of its GDP for the second year running — falling steadily from a record 0.95 per cent of GDP in 2006–07 to 0.92 per cent in 2008–09.

The drop comes despite a real-term 2.2 per cent increase in the total amount spent on R&D to 21 billion rand (US$2.9 billion) in 2008–09. Since GDP grew at a quicker rate, the proportion of GDP spent on R&D fell.

"We are worried that this percentage of GDP, the most widely accepted indicator of competitiveness of a country’s economy, is not growing at the level that we want it to," said South African science minister Naledi Pandor. "We must probe the report carefully to establish why we are not meeting that one per cent target and look at where it is we may be falling behind."

She also expressed concern about the slight drop in the total number of researchers per 1,000 South Africans recorded in the survey. Having remained static for several years at 1.5, it dropped to 1.4 in 2008–09. This compares "very poorly" with countries like Argentina with 2.9, China with 1.9 and Russia with 6.4 researchers per 1,000 citizens, she said.

The financial crisis and the shortage of researchers contributed to the failure to reach the target, she added.

Private sector investment grew by 3.6 in real terms — more than the public sector investment, but still less than hoped for given the tax credit system introduced in 2008 to spur private investment, said Derek Hanekom, deputy science minister. "The uptake on the tax incentive has not been what we had liked it to be," he said.

However, despite the recent setbacks, the government remains committed to reaching the target as soon as possible, and moving beyond it to 1.5 per cent of GDP by 2014, Pandor said.

But South Africa’s scientists remain sceptical.

The failure to reach the target "is a signal to South Africa that as a country we are not doing enough to fund and stimulate R&D," said Roseanne Diab, executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa.

"Of particular concern is the fact that this is the second consecutive year that the percentage has declined,"  she said, adding that investigation should take place "as a matter of urgency to avoid the situation escalating into a continuing downward trend".

"Whilst it is extremely reassuring that the minister is concerned, it is also apparent that the government currently seems to be doing nothing about anything," said Rasigan Maharajh, chief director of the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation based at the Tshwane University of Technology.

"My worry with the minister’s concern is that she is also primarily responsible for defining policy and ensuring the allocation of public funding. South Africa deserves an explanation for the decreases and the country missing the target," he told SciDev.Net.